Field of Science

Magic babies

There's an interesting article today over at Slate (Why Babies Crave Magic) that features work from one of my favorite local labs.

Making Super-babies

Parenting advice is no doubt as old as time itself. There is good advice, and then there are myths.

The Walt Disney Company is, in a roundabout fashion, owning up to one myth, which is that their Baby Einstein videos make babies smarter. This has been a well-known myth in scientific circles -- the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no videos of any type for children under 2. Controlled experiments are tough, since it's hard to assign children to either watch or not watch TV (this tends to correlate with parental factors), but a quick search found a conference paper showing that toddlers have difficulty learning words presented on television, which fits with what I hear from other language development people that young children do not learn vocabulary from television (this isn't a literature I know well -- the youngest kids I study are 4 years old).

This brings up a myth about bilingualism. Many parents believe that raising a child bilingual makes them smarter. Some do this by having their children watch Spanish-language programming like Diego. This is likely a waste of time for two reasons: first, children typically do not learn a language if it makes up less than 20% of what they hear during a day. So a television program or two isn't going to do much good (again, citing other language researchers; I didn't see an obvious paper relating to this).

Second, though, the evidence that bilingualism makes a baby smarter is weak. The problem, again, is that controlled experiments are impossible. There is no way of randomly assigning toddlers to be bilingual or not. And bilingualism correlates with family (e.g., cultural and genetic) factors. As anyone who has spent time with a bilingual family knows, raising a child bilingual is a lot of work, and many parents don't bother. The parents who do are, by definition, not randomly distributed.

That said, there is a good reason to raise your children bilingual, even if it doesn't make them smarter: your children will be able to speak two languages! And that's pretty useful.

But if you want to make smarter babies, the best option I know of is to play with them more.

Vaccination and the Assault on Health

I had always though that refusal to get a flu vaccination was relatively harmless masochism. Refusal to vaccinate one's own children, on the other hand, should probably be prosecuted as child abuse, but at the least the negative consequences stay close to home.

Yesterday, however, I read two articles on vaccination. One in Slate looks at the risks the unvaccinated pose to people with immunity problems (she's unable to get childcare for her child, who is undergoing cancer treatment, because the risk of being around unvaccinated children is too high). If that seems like a parochial problem ("my kid doesn't have cancer; why should I worry about vaccination rates?"), the other article, appearing in Wired, is feature-length, and focuses on the anti-vaccine movement and the dangers it poses to the health of everyone.

Both note the rise in non-vaccination and the concomitant rise in outbreaks of the scourges of yesteryear. And they were scourges:
Just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in mor ehtan 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage...
But refusing to vaccinate is more than just a convenient way of decreasing the probability you'll have to pay for college (and that your neighbor's kid with leukemia will survive). This is because the un-vaccinated put the vaccinated at risk.

The Risk to Us All

As told in the Wired article, an unvaccinated 17-year-old Indiana girl picked up measles on a 2005 trip to Bucharest. When she returned, she went to a church gathering of 500 people. Of the 50 attendees who had not been vaccinated, 32 developed measles. Any adults who got measles had at least made the choice to take on that risk, but the children had not.

Even worse are the two people who had been vaccinated but nonetheless got sick. They had been responsible and protected themselves, but this reckless 17-year-old and her parents endangered their lives. First, though, three cheers for vaccines. Of the unvaccinated, 64% got sick. Of the vaccinated and those with natural immunity, only 0.8% got sick.

But still, vaccines don't always work. Sometimes they don't take. Sometimes your immune response may have weakened (for instance, through aging). Or you might just have bad luck. A 2002 study in The Journal of Infectious Diseases determined that you were safer as an unvaccinated person in a well-vaccinated country than as a vaccinated person in a largely un-vaccinated country.

People who refuse vaccines aren't just risking themselves, and parents who refuse vaccines for their children aren't just risking their children, they are risking you and me.


What makes this even worse is that every baby is initially unvaccinated. Children have to reach a certain age in order to get vaccines. What protects babies is that everyone older is healthy (i.e., vaccinated). So adult vaccine-refuseniks made it through infancy partly thanks to everyone else getting vaccinated. But they aren't willing to give other babies the same chance.

Do people have the right to choose for themselves whether they want vaccines? Sure -- as long as they live on top of a mountain or on a deserted island away from contact with anyone else. Mandatory vaccination**, and now!

(**With medical exceptions, of course)

Why do so many homophones have two pronunciations?

An interest in puns has led me to start reading the literature on homophones. Interestingly, in appears that in the scientific literature "homophone" and "homograph" mean the same thing, which explains why there are so many papers about mispronouncing homophones. Here's a representative quote:

"...reports a failure to use context in reading, by people with autism, such that homophones are mispronounced (eg: 'there was a tear in her eye' might be misread so as to sound like 'there was a tear in her dress").'

Sticklers will note that "tear in her eye" actually does involve a homophone (tier), but I don't think that's what the authors meant.

Readers of this blog know that I'm not a prescriptivist -- that is, I believe words mean whatever most speakers of a language think the words mean. So I'm not going to claim that these authors are misusing the word, since there seem to be so many of them. That said, it would be convenient to have a term for two words that have the same pronunciation which is distinct from the term for two words with distinct pronunciations but are written in the same way.

Recruiting Laboratory Participants

I am in the process of revamping the Internet laboratory, as I'm trying to increase the number of participants. Some very successful websites recruit ~500/day. I have been averaging about 30/day -- still respectable, but it limits what I can do.

In this context, I read recent reports from the folks behind Phrase Detectives with interest. Phrase Detectives, it appears, gets a slightly greater amount of traffic than I do. What I focused on was their method of advertising and how well it works. They noted that their traffic comes in the following forms:

direct: 46%
website link: 29%
search: 12%
Facebook advertisement: 13%

Then they looked at the bounce rate (the number of visitors who arrive at the home page then scoot away) for each of these sources:

direct: 33%
link: 29%
search: 44%
Facebook advertisement: 90%

It appears that paid advertisements -- the only one of these sources that actually costs money -- isn't worth much. In the end, only 4% of visitors who didn't bounce came through the paid advertisement.

Renovations at the Cognition and Language Lab

I am in the processing of doing a complete overhaul of the Web-based laboratory. The site has been due for some editing for a while; the page about me still lists me as an "incoming graduate student," though I just started my third year.

More importantly, though, I want to make the website more interesting. Though I've collected some very good data, leading to two publications already with several more on their way, the experiments I'm currently interested in running require more participants. Right now I get about 30-40 participants a day. For the new experiments to work, I need closer to 100 per day.

Here is where you, the reader, comes in. What do you think would make the site more interesting and the experiments more compelling? I am doing a few things already. First, you may have noticed there are lately more pictures on the website. The new experiments are all going to be game-like. Participants will get back scores and, in some cases, know how they did compared to others. This has worked very well for folks like Games with a Purpose or I also admit that some of the experiments I've posted over the last few years have been pretty dry.

One last thing I'm considering doing is changing the name of the site to reflect the new brand. I had planned on, but someone just snagged that domain. I could still go with, but there is always the risk of confusion. What else might be a catchy name?

If you have any ideas about the domain name or any other aspect of the website, please leave a comment here or email me at